Friday, March 19, 2010

Time for Coffee

Ever since that first cup of coffee with dates on the airplane, I have been thinking about making my own Arabic coffee, or qahwa/kawah arabeeya.  The scent is incredible and the flavor is amazing.  I've tasted several versions of qahwa arabeeya  while on the ground in KSA and it was all tasted in one day.  My first taste was at a colleague's home.  His wife poured us small cups of the greenish colored liquid.  It was thick and flavorful, just like the coffee I had on the plane.  To accompany the coffee, we had dates that were covered with sesame seeds and stuffed with almonds.  Later that evening, I went to a park where my colleague's wife was meeting her family for a picnic.  As you can see, there were no shortage of beverages.  I believe I missed one urn in this photograph, as I can only count seven and I believe every family that came to the picnic brought two urns each - one for the kawah and one for the shai (tea).  The slight differentiations in each family's kawah was subtle to my untrained palette, and I was more than happy to continuously try the different varieties that was offered to me.

At work, I have been strictly drinking coffee from Dr. Cafe (see the "Recnetly Dined At" sidebar).  It is your typical, western style coffee shop that serves espresso based drinks and American style coffee.  I have a cup every morning of the workweek, Saturday to Wednesday, bringing my favorite thermos to get filled.

Today, I went to the grocer and decided that I must try my hand at ARabic coffee.  At the spice section there are two types of beans you can order - Arabic and Turkish.  I ordered up some Arabic coffee, which I had the spice guy grind for me since I do not yet have my personal coffee grinder.  I also purchased some cardamom seed pods, having the choice of two different varieties.  I choose the less expensive of the two.  The spice guy offered to grind the pods, but I decided to leave them whole. 

My unofficial guide to making Arabic coffee:
  • Boil water
  • Add Arabic coffee and cardamom seeds - they can be ground or you can open up the pods and put the shells and small seeds in together.  One internet resource suggests a 2-part coffee to 1-part cardamom ratio.
  •  Boil together for 5 minutes or so
  • Pour and add sweetener if you choose.  I neglected to buy sugar, so I added a bit of honey
The resulting Arabic coffee that I made at home was flavorful and lovely smelling, but not as thick or strong as what I remember enjoying.  I think I will add more coffee into the mix next time.

Friday, March 12, 2010

bread / khubz

Whenever I really like something, I try to learn how to make it myself so I can enjoy it whenever I fancy.  One treat that I became quickly addicted to is zaatar bread.  Popular in the Arabian Peninsula and Middle East, zaatar (also written as za'tar) is a mixture of various dried herbs, usually ground thyme, oregano, marjoram, sumac, toasted sesame seeds, and salt.  Each region, country, and specific household will prefer their own blend.

My first try of za'tar bread was at a lovely Middle Eastern restaurant in NYC called Moustache (see link under "Recently Dined At").  While not exclusively vegetarian, there are enough options to fill even the hungriest vegetarian diner.  In addition to za'tar, they have humus, felafel, foul, and other dishes that either have been or will probably be featured here on this blog.

Spice markets are easy to come by in NYC, and there is a well stocked one in Hell's Kitchen that sold za'tar in bulk (I will update this post with the exact location and name of this place once I remember it).  To make your own za'tar bread the easy way, simply by the spices from a reputable shop, get some fresh pita, and good extra virgin olive oil.  As your oven pre-heats, pour a generous amount of olive oil on your pita, smear it around with your fingers (or use a pastry brush if you don't want soft hands0, and then liberally sprinkle the spices on top.  Cook in the oven until the bread is hot and the olive oil is bubbling.

Being in the Arabian Peninsula, I was not surprised to see za'taron the menus at at the market.  I found two different varieties at Tamimi's, purchasing the greener one, saving the reddish version for another day.  I made my own za'tar bread here in my dorm-like kitchen, with ok results.  The bread here is called khubz and is thinner than your traditional pita, but is just as tasty.  I need to adjust the time due to the thickness of the bread, along with the fact that I'm using and electric oven.

Another khubz-based item that I am in love with is labneh with honey.  Trusty Mama Noura was my introduction to this item on their "pastry" section.  Labneh is a very thick yogurt, even thicker than that Greek yogurt all the kids are eating now.  This paste is oven eaten with bread and served weet or savory - sweet with honey and savory with za'tar.  At Mama Noura, they smear the labneh on their freshly baked khubz, drizzle honey on top, and cook it in the oven and roll it up.  This is one of the best things I have ever eaten - warm, comforting, sweet, filling, and very simple.  Simple enough to even make in a dorm-like kitchen?

At my last grocery outing, I got the courage to belly up to the deli counter.  Overwhelmed with the choices of labneh, olives, and various pickled items, I asked for the Turkish variety for no reason other than it was one of the lower priced plain varieties.  I bought my freshly baked bread from the bakery section and honey from the condiment isle.  The honey took a bit of time, as I wanted to purchase local honey and many of the jars were imported from the USA, Australia, and countries in Europe.  I finally found a jar that was produced in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Like my za'tar bread making experience, I didn't have the electric oven temperature mastered.  However, it was not a bad first attempt.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Cure to Homesickness Pt.2, Grocery Shopping

I have shopped at three different grocery stores since my arrival and each one is very different. As you may have already known, I am very particular with my grocers (see""Shopping for Groceries on the right hand side bar).

My first grocery experience is on the compound. It presents as quite basic, smaller that a full grocer, but larger than a bodega. The compound grocer does have some basic non-food items as well, such as household stuffs, perfumes, and small toys.  In addition to Arabic food items, there are Filipino products to cater to the large number of staff who live and work on the compound.  To give you an idea of what this grocer is like, I’ll share a partial list of items I have purchased at this grocer: stuffed grape leaves in a can, green olives in a can, popcorn in a can; bean thread noodles, scallions, upo (Filipino squash), cabbage, toilet paper, sponges. 

My second grocery experience is off the compound (or “off campus” as I like to say). Although it is only the equivalent of a few city blocks away, it is a bit challenge to get to as I have to cross a very busy street and pedestrians do not have the right of way in the KSA.  This grocer is decidedly more “Arabic”. Less random household items and a nicely stocked deli counter filled with a variety of olives and cheeses and a separate spice section where one can buy bulk items. Items I have purchased here include bananas, cauliflower, garlic, pasta, olive oil, toothpaste (*note, the toothpaste cost more than the olive oil), cotton swabs, laundry detergent (Tide for general stuff, and a special abaya wash for the delicates – it keeps your blacks staying black!), stuffed grape leaves in a can.

My third grocery experience is also off campus at a place called Tamimi’s. It is actually SafeWay, which I am told is an “American” grocer, but I have never seen or been to one before.  It is a very large, suburban type grocery store – wide isles, large carts, and they also sell more than food items like household items, small toys, and such.  And for reasons I am not sure of yet, you do not have to wear your headscarf inside. Special sections that I took notice of are the nice little plant section, a date section, a well stocked deli with olives, local cheeses and imported cheeses, and an extensive spice and bulk bean section.  Inside my grocery bag: my first house plant, zatar spices, ginger, silken tofu, a broom & dustpan, general household cleaner, flat bread, dates.
Today I decided that I had to cook something, despite my meager, dorm-like kitchen. Menu: pancit. For those of you not in the know, pancit is Filipino noodles.  My mother makes a delicious vegetarian version and I honestly do not have to cook it much as it has always been so easy to go my parent’s to have some home cooking.  In my battle to fight homesickness, I tried my hand at making some pancit.  The kitchen is small and at the moment I don’t have the proper pots, pans, or even a chopping board.  So, did what I could and the results were pretty tasty. The recipe below is quite basic – I could not find shitake mushrooms in my adventures, which I really missed. Please be creative and add your own twist.

How to make:
1. Soak bean thread noodles for about 5 minutes
2. Meanwhile, chop up your favorite vegetables. I used baby bok choi & cabbage.
3. Sauté some tofu in oil with ginger and garlic.  It is preferable if you use regular or cotton tofu as it stands up to the sautéing more. However, I only had access to extra firm silken tofu, which did work out nicely.
4. Pull tofu out and set aside.  Keep any remaining oil in the pan.
5. Put in more garlic, then your veggies. Add a bit of salt and sauté until wilted. Pull out your soaked (and now softened) bean thread noodles and put inside your pan. Continue to sauté and add some soy sauce and a good squeeze of lemon juice.  As the cooking nears completion, add some scallions and your reserved tofu. Heat through.


Masarap! (Delicious!)

Monday, March 1, 2010

The gateway food for vegetarians (Or... I can't find my mama at Mama Noura’s)

I have identified as a vegetarian for more than half my life. One of the first “vegetarian” foods I remember being told about was falafel. This is the perfect gateway food as it is fried, flavorful, and very cheap. In NYC, there are so many falafel spots to choose from – from restaurants to street carts. I have tried falafel at two different places since my arrival here in the Kingdom. The Mama Noura Juice Center is truly a special place (see link also under “Recently Dined At”). While I have never been inside as it is for males only, I have eaten their falafel plate and falafel sandwich. The plate is pretty much a deconstructed sandwich that includes more pickled items, including pickled hot peppers. They also serve wonderful fresh juices and make blends upon request. I have had the half-blackberry, half-strawberry blend as well as the straight up pomegranate. From what I can see through the window, they also have raisin, banana with milk, and mango. Mama Noura also serves shwarma and other meaty treats for those who are interested. At the compound restaurant, they also serve falafel. To my surprise, it is only served for breakfast. So, what’s a hungry girl to do? Although a bit weary at first, I am completely sold on falafel sandwich for breakfast. It is less than $1USD (cheaper than the date twist and croissants at my coffee shop) and more nutritious – packed with veggies and protein. For 5SR (just over $1USD) you can get a “mixed” falafel sandwich, which includes egg and various salads (like tabbouleh and baba ghanooj). I am hungry for breakfast, but not that hungry.


Several faux pas made today during my lunch hour. I needed a break from the staff cafeteria (as you can see from my Twitter feed, I've been eating a lot of vegetable curry and lentils), so I decided to go to the "campus"restaurant. I have been here before with a male colleague, so I thought I knew how to handle myself. I went on the line, which is buffet style, and got my Lebanese fish with rice. I was then handed a tray with a bread and a plastic utensil set, as I neglected to pick them up when I entered. I paid for my lunch, then looked around. Oh, I should go sit in the ladies section! So, | bring my tray to the ladies dining section and could not figure out how to enter, as there is a maze of screens to protect the diners. I then notice that there is another buffet line in this room and a register. Oh! I was supposed to order, pay, and dine in the separate section! I ate my meal alone, noticing that it is very nice to have olive oil as a condiment choice at my table as opposed to ketchup. I packed my leftovers in a to-go container, picking up my tray to put it away. More confusion - I was supposed to leave the tray on my table and not take it with me. My tray was quickly taken by a staffer whose job it is tend to diner's needs (e.g., get hot sauce upon request, give diners to-go containers, replace tissues, etc.). I walk through the maze to get to the "public"ladies section. I then notice that there is a totally separate entrance for women, which is not labeled. I guess I was just supposed to know - I will for the next time.